Episode 237: Dr. Tonya Matthews talks about uncomfortable subjects, creating a new culture and radical empathy

DEI, Non-Profit, Podcast, Women of Influence


Dr. Tonya Matthews is the President & Chief Executive Officer of the International African American Museum, which is scheduled to open in Charleston, South Carolina in late 2022. The museum “strives to foster empathy and understanding, empowering visitors with the knowledge of the past. The journey will challenge, illuminate, inspire and ultimately, will move people to action.” Dr. Matthews is a museum professional who fell in love with the classroom known as museums and is excited for the opportunity ahead of her at IAAM. In this episode, she talks about tackling uncomfortable subjects, creating a new culture, and radical empathy. 


Uncomfortable subjects

“The meaningful conversation that we’re fostering happens when guests leave, not when they’re there.”

Digging into some of the more difficult subjects of our collective history is often avoided because they are deeply personal and emotional. Dr. Matthews tells us that the IAAM purposely puts these subjects on display to inspire deeper exploration and conversation.

Dr. Matthews also acknowledges that many of the truly meaningful and transformational conversations are likely to happen after someone visits the museum, and that’s okay. It takes time for people to process new and often jarring truths that they have not had to face before. It is the mission of the museum to foster widely diverse and respectful conversations. 


Creating a new culture

“Culture eats everything for breakfast.”

Leading a “start-up” is never easy. Combine that process with the subject matter of the IAAM and it takes a sophisticated approach to ensure success. Dr. Matthews emphasizes that one of her biggest responsibilities is to get the culture right at the very beginning. Since the museum hasn’t opened yet, the opportunities to do great things or fall flat are equally present.

Dr. Matthews doesn’t take this lightly. She actively seeks out diverse opinions and thoughts, working very hard to foster an environment of respect and support. Having the right people onboard is part of that strategy, but so is honoring their heritage, emotions, and contributions. 


Radical empathy

“We don’t want to reduce a culture to a moment in history.”

There’s empathy, and then there’s radical empathy. The difference is an unyielding commitment to ensure that all voices are heard. That doesn’t necessarily lead to agreement, but it does lead to a deeper level of respect and understanding. So much so that Dr. Matthews recounts a time that someone completely disagreed with her, but could at least understand where she was coming from. 


To learn more about the International African American Museum, visit: https://iaamuseum.org/.

To connect directly with Dr. Matthews:

This podcast wouldn’t be possible without the incredible work of our amazing team:

  • Scheduling and correspondence by Kristen Karaliunas
  • Branding and design by Fabiana Fonseca

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